GBI begins criminal investigation of Balfour

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has launched a criminal investigation of state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, for filing false expense reports, state law enforcement officials confirmed Tuesday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The GBI’s involvement marks the first criminal investigation of a state senator since 2005, when former Sen. Charles Walker was convicted in federal court on 127 counts including mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.

Balfour, chairman of the Senate’s powerful Rules Committee, has repeatedly said he inadvertently made mistakes on expense reports going back to at least 2009.

“There’s been absolutely no determination of anything” involving wrongdoing, said Balfour’s attorney, Robert Highsmith. “I think it highly likely that this routine matter will conclude the way it began,” he said, noting Balfour agreed to penalties last month that he felt should end the matter.

The Senate Ethics Committee fined Balfour $5,000 for filing inaccurate travel reports to claim expenses. Balfour was also told to repay about $350 to the state for the lapses.

The GBI does not have a deadline to finish its probe of Balfour, which it began at the request of Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said.

Olens declined comment. Through a spokeswoman, Olens also declined to provide a copy of the letter requesting the investigation, citing state law that exempts such a document due to “any pending investigation.”

Penalties in state law for willfully falsifying legislative expense reports include a fine up to $1,000 and as much as five years in jail. Until Tuesday, however, authorities had not said whether they were interested in pursuing the case.

The ethics committee fines, handed down by a group of elected peers, angered ethics watchdogs who likened them to a slap on the wrist. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who cast the committee’s lone “no” vote to the settlement agreement, requested an investigation by Olens.

McKoon’s request cited the case of former state Sen. Roscoe Dean, who was censured by the Senate in 1976 for misusing state expense accounts — including claiming trips to Atlanta from his home in Jesup while authorities said he was on a trip to the Bahamas.

Authorities prosecuted Dean on theft charges, although the case ended in a mistrial.

On Tuesday, McKoon said he’s hopeful the issue involving Balfour is resolved by year’s end. “The main thing is I don’t want people getting the impression I’m prejudging Sen. Balfour,” he said. “We had criminal allegations brought to the ethics committee’s attention” that need to be resolved by the proper authorities, he said.

The investigation was cheered by groups advocating for ethics reform in the Legislature.

Balfour was accused of billing the state for mileage while out of town on lobbyist-funded trips, and for failing to create a subcommittee to audit all senators’ reimbursement vouchers.

Balfour, who had acknowledged mistakes in filing reimbursement claims, in March returned nearly $800 to the state based on a couple of instances. He then amended other reports after an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found eight additional instances where Balfour claimed reimbursement on days lobbyists reported buying him meals or lodging in other cities.

“I think it is important for an outside agency to look into it, as opposed to a group that doesn’t have investigative authority and certainly is affected by the political process,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.